Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Look. Up In The Sky.

I'll start with Superman. Everything else did.

One of my earliest memories is watching the first Superman film with Dad. Superman freaked me out in a way that Batman and Spider-Man didn't. Superman was something alien, and even when I was a kid the terrible loneliness of Krypton's destruction had an effect on me. To this day, I get a bit wobbly watching the first hour of the Donner movie.

Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope. Superman's secret origin has an emotional weight that an origin like Batman's has lost over time. For kids, the loss of their parents is perhaps their greatest fear; hence all the orphaned superheroes, I suppose. Maybe these days I identify more with Jor-El. Maybe at some point Superman's origin stops being about making your own way, alone in a hostile world, and starts being about how far you would go to protect your family.

The comic character came later for me. I was reading the crazy old 60s comics at the same time as post-Crisis Byrne/Stern/Jurgens UK reprints. And I liked them, but not as much as other things. Not as much as the Exploits of Spider-Man (a Marvel UK anthology title, great fun until 90s overindulgence set in), or Simon Furman's Transformers. Certainly not as much as Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle's Batman stories, to my mind the best run of that period.

I don't remember the first Siegel and Shuster story I read. At a guess, I'd say it must have been in Brother Paul's copy of the Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told. I'd be lying if I said that everything changed instantly for me, but that version of Superman- the original, Golden Age version- lurked in my brain for a long time, much like the early, Gothic Golden Age Batman stuff did, informing everything I understood about the character.

And Golden Age Superman is Superman to me. There's compassion, righteousness, and energy in the stories. And anger, too. The anger of two kids who'd grown up through the Great Depression, when corruption and the evil deeds of the rich and powerful had forced destitution on the people, when Fascism had begun its march across Europe, when hope took the form of people banding together for the common good, of the strong choosing to help the weak instead of exploiting them.

That's the myth, anyway, but what is Superman if not a myth? The Golden Age Superman provides the soul that is sometimes missing from the later eras. Golden Age Superman wasn't the conservative, avuncular figure of the 50s and 60s, who wasted his days in a spiteful passive-aggressive cycle of deceit and practical jokery with Lois Lane. Neither was he Earth-Two Kal-L, the parallel world stand-in created in the 70s, recently beaten to death by a whinging strawman with severe entitlement issues (You know, I actually like a lot of Geoff Johns' writing. But his interpretation of Superboy Prime as the kind of fanboy he doesn't like was cringeworthy for the most part.)

Golden Age Superman is absolutely not a procrastinating self-doubter who weeps at the drop of a hat. I'm not saying a man shouldn't have a damn good cry every now and then, but if I never see a drawing with Superman in floods again, it'll be too soon.

The main offender here is George Perez's cover to Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, one that always ranks highly in polls of the greatest covers. I loathe it. It encapsulates several things I dislike in modern superhero comics: a pointless death, faux-classical pretention, and an ineffective Superman. Why on Earth do writers want to cut Superman's legs out from under him? Superman always finds a way. That is the point of Superman. I don't want grim, depressing, tortured, self-loathing quotation-marks-realism-end-quotation-marks in my Superman comics. That's what Daredevil's for.

Golden Age Superman is none of these things. He acts, unafraid of consequence. An embodiment of Roosevelt-era politics, a proletarian activist reversing the disparity of power. Scary, even, because the only thing keeping him in check is his own sense of morality, regardless of whether or not that means chucking a copper out of a window.

It lends the early comics a zeal and motion that's impossible not to get swept up in. I've seen it described (somewhere, I forget where) as almost outsider art, naïve even by the standards of the time. Remember, this was long after McCay's Little Nemo, and a contemporary of Dick Tracy and Hergé's Tintin. Outside of the rushed demands of periodical publishing, there's no real excuse for the crudity of the art. Bob Kane (or his ghost artists) were doing much better work for the same company at the same time. But it doesn't matter, because in this case enthusiasm trumps talent by a huge margin.

Odd to think that so often it's argued that Superman should be neutral as regards politics. Take the recent kerfuffle about Superman renouncing his American citizenship in a rubbish story. It was such an obvious provocation to people of a certain political mindset that, had it been me, I'd have been embarrassed getting angry.

My problem with it, curiously, had nothing to do with Superman as much as it has to do with the unquestioned assumption that everything would be better if we didn't have countries and we were all one big united planet. When unexamined it sounds great, but I can't help but feel what is really being argued is that we should all be one big homogenous society, implicitly white, Western and capitalist. I don't know. I like my culture, I like my flag, and I don't like the way we have surrendered identity issues to reactionaries and bigots. To see Superman do so is unpleasant, and plays to the idea that only right-wingers are true Americans because look how fast the bleeding hearts turn their backs on their country. One thing I'm certain of is that I'm not going to renounce the Fair Country just because some Welsh folk do something I don't like.

I think it's a fair argument that in representing an American ideal, in his opposition to divisiveness, Superman should be portrayed as aloof from politics, that in character terms he would want to represent every American regardless of affiliation. Fair enough. But there's no way Clark Kent votes Republican, any more than Bruce Wayne votes Democrat. Ok, maybe his Midwestern upbringing counts against this interpretation. I mean, no pro-union socialist or liberal activist ever came from Kansas now, did they?

This is the long way round of saying, I am really looking forward to Grant Morrison's upcoming run on the rebooted Action Comics. I don't care about Superman's status quo, or whether he's married or not, or who amongst his supporting cast has bought the (Kent) farm, or what number they're going to stick on the cover. I don't care whether comment sections and message boards and The Twitter fill up with denunciations of a direction that isn't due to be published for months.

I don't care because with All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison was responsible for writing the greatest Superman story ever told. I don't care because Morrison is quoted in the New York Post as saying "We felt it was time for the big adventures of a 21st-century Paul Bunyan who fights for the weak and downtrodden against bullies of all kinds, from robot invaders and crime lords to corrupt city officials." I don't care because if Morrison fulfills the promise of that quote, then for the first time in seventy odd years, the original Superman gets to fly again.


  1. I'll go along with that! Those early Superman strips have such vigour to them, real astonishment...they're magnetic as hell, and the air is positive, joyful even. A tenth of that would be enough to get me to read a Superman comic, and you know I'm confident Morrison feels exactly the same way? All Star was a fantastic homage to the post-Siegel/Shuster Superman stories...if he's planning to do the same for the S/S stuff in Action then I can't wait.

  2. I can certainly attest to identifying with Jor-El with age. Time was, the whole "Jor-El puts his infant son in a rocket" thing was purely intellectual to me -- I understood it as simply a part of the myth. Then about a half a year after my son was born, I watched the pilot for the '90s Superman cartoon on my iPod on a plane, and I started tearing up to the point where I had to stop the show. I really lost it when he puts Kal-El to sleep because it's EASIER FOR HIS SON that way.

  3. I've just seen the first few preview pages of the new Action Comics, an if nothing else Rags Morales has nailed the velocity of the early stories. I've seen Morrison talk about this, too. I'm very excited.

    Do you know the other thing that almost set me blubbing in the cinema? The Marlon Brando voiceover on the first Superman Returns teaser trailer, years ago. The "They only lack the light to show the way" monologue. Shame the film ended up being a bit duff, really.